The Failed Hijacking That Remade the Soviet Union
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a small, determined group of people can bring about change.
By Eromo Egbejule
Their dream was to make it to Israel. The problem was that they lived in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and could not get exit visas. Like so many Soviet Jewish “refuseniks,” Edward Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits were stuck. So they hatched an audacious plan that never got off the ground, but changed the world nonetheless.
The June 1970 Operation Wedding was the brainchild of Kuznetsov, a dissident who had served a prison term for publishing an anti-Soviet newspaper, and ex-combat pilot Dymshits, along with 12 other like-minded Jews and two non-Jewish sympathizers. The Soviet Union had denied their request to immigrate to Israel, given how Israel’s Western allies and its victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 had led to frosty diplomatic relations between it and the Soviet Union. So the group of refuseniks — one of many underground cells plotting freedom — decided to hijack a plane.
Almost all of us were sure, 99 percent sure, the attempt would not be successful and we would be arrested.
The 16-person crew booked an airplane under the pretext of flying to Stockholm for a wedding. The plan was to assume control midflight, when Dymshits would take over from the pilots, who would be deplaned at a stopover.
KGB agents had been tipped off about the plot, though, and were waiting to apprehend the group on June 15 at an airport in Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg). All 16 involved were convicted, and the ringleaders received death sentences. But what became known as the First Leningrad Trial attracted sustained outrage from Soviet émigrés and the international community, eventually leading to their sentences being commuted.
American Jews were among those around the world who demonstrated and mobilized to get thousands of their Soviet comrades out. They frequently met with disappointment, says Morey Schapira, a retired Silicon Valley executive who was a student activist and the leader of one such movement at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The years I served as national president were the darkest years, when they were only letting out 1,000 people,” he reminisces. “We chained ourselves to the fences of Soviet consulates and embassies. Rabbis were being arrested.”
Eventually, the operation succeeded in bringing attention to the human rights abuses and eccentric migration policies within the Soviet Union, unraveling the truth behind the propaganda of a well-run state that claimed moral and ideological superiority. And that was the point all along. “Almost all of us were sure, 99 percent sure, the attempt would not be successful and we would be arrested,” Kuznetsov told the New York Times after his 1979 release. Kuznetsov moved to Israel, where he later became editor of a popular Russian-language newspaper.
The pressure that led to the prisoner release also laid the groundwork for more-lenient emigration policies. Only a few thousand people were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in the 1960s, but in the early 1970s, there was a burst of 150,000 Soviet Jewish émigrés.
In 2016, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, the daughter of Edward Kutznetsov and Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman charged in the hijacking, directed Operation Wedding, a documentary about the event. The main message of the film, she says, is to portray how individuals can change history. “We have the power to change,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov says. “We’re not just a cog in the system.”
Reforms such as perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) under Mikhail Gorbachev happened too late for the Soviet Union. The house of cards had already begun crumbling and the world’s largest country eventually dissolved into more than a dozen constituent states in 1991. The refuseniks had lost the battle but won the war.
- Eromo Egbejule